MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United – tactical analysis

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

As game week 19 came to an end, two of the MLS’ most popular, and hated, teams came head to head in a clash. Seattle Sounders were just coming out of defeating Columbus Crew SC 2-1 while Atlanta United were coming out of a wild 3-3 draw with the New York Red Bulls. With pride and the league title on the line, both teams battled it out at CenturyLink Field.

In this tactical analysis of a classic MLS game, we aim to show you that tactics of each team. Additionally, we will aim to showcase an in-depth analysis of each side’s specific movements and patterns.


MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics

Brian Schmetzer made four changes to his team. The first involved defender Xavier Arreaga being replaced by fellow defender Kim Ki-Hee. Midfielder Danny Leyva was replaced by Harry Shipp while Víctor Rodríguez, who took on a left hamstring strain last game, was replaced by Jordan Morris. Finally, striker Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez was replaced by Raúl Ruidíaz.

On the other side, Frank de Boer, made two changes to his team. The first involved resting Mikey Ambrose forBrek Shea while Florentin Pogba was rested for Leandro González Pírez.

Seattle’s effective and aggressive pressing system

From the start of the game, the Seattle Sounders had more energy and were actively pursuing the ball. Their high-energy and high-intensity style bleed through to their defensive and attacking actions but one field which greatly benefitted from the Rave Green’s energy was their pressing. 

While Seattle lined up in a 4-4-1-1, a variation of 4-4-2, they would change their shape on the pitch. Two of the midfielders from the original midfield four block would move to the lone attacking midfielder, the number 10. This shifted Seattle’s formation to a 4-2-3-1. 

This shift greatly helped the Rave Green’s pressing intentions as it established five midfielders in the centre of the pitch. Before this shape, the attacking midfielder would be pressing with the striker. This left a midfield block of four against Atlanta’s midfield four

However, with this simple switch, the attacking midfielder was now allowed to become a part of the midfield block and as such establish five players in the centre of the pitch. This created numerical superiority in favour of Seattle.

Additionally, this new formation allowed Seattle’s fullbacks to push up high and mark Atlanta’s two wide midfielders. This meant that the attacking trio did not need to drop deep and mark those wide men. They could focus their attempts on the fullbacks of Atlanta. 

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the distinct 4-2-3-1 shape of the Seattle Sounders.

Here we see that almost every Seattle player is covering an Atlantan player. This type of pressing made build up impossible for Atlanta as the passing lanes to each person is virtually unsafe. Seattle have control of the centre of the pitch and Atlanta can only play long balls.

Moreover, notice how the person in the top left is making a curved run towards the ball, whilst blocking the passing lane to a defender. These types of actions, along with the structural pressing, made it impossible fo Atlanta to securely buildup.

As a consequence, four of Seattle ’s players would be in near proximity to Atlanta’s widest players. Due to this positioning, Atlanta had to be careful when building up play through the wide areas as a wrong pass could result in quick possession and counter from Seattle. 

Whenever Atlanta started getting deeper or tried to buildup, the Rave Green would take their pressing one step further and transform themselves into a 4-1-4-1. This severely restricted Atlanta’s attempts at buildup. 

The number 10 would man-mark Atlanta’s central defensive midfielder with the striker making a curved run towards the ball-carrying defender. The other three midfielders behind the number 10 would strategically position themselves. 

The two wide midfielders stayed in near proximity to the fullbacks. This positioning closed down a passing lane to the fullbacks. The final midfielder was free and often followed where the ball went. After going to that side, he would look to covershadow (stand in front) of an Atlanta midfielder. 

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the pressing pattern of the Rave Green.

Here, in a 4-1-4-1 formation, the attacking midfielder is pressing one Atlantan defender whilst keeping a check on the other midfielder. Moreover, the other three midfielders are either covering fullbacks (far left and far right) or covershadowing another Atlantan midfielder

As such the defender has no choice but to dribble forwards. Any other actions and Seattle will gain the ball and launch a devastating counterattack. Yet again, Seattle have complete control of the centre and control the play at will.

These types of pressing patterns made it extremely hard for Atlanta to build up and they often resorted to long balls to their wide midfielders.

Aside from structural pressing patterns, Seattle also employed individual pressing patterns to improve the efficiency of their pressing.

When a wide midfielder had the ball, the Seattle fullback would push up but not as much to fully challenge for the ball. Then, a Seattle midfield would approach the midfielder in a curved run. This pressing tactic worked as it created a 2v1 in favour of Seattle and blocked off most passing options for the midfielder.

If the midfielder did manage to pass the ball to his teammates, the pass would be either weak or inaccurate, allowing the rest of the team a chance to win the ball again.

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see one of the special pressing patterns from the Sounders.

Here the fullback pushes up but stays in his position (shown in yellow). A nearby Seattle midfielder starts pressing the ball carrier. As such, there is a 2v1 situation here. Moreover, the positions of the other team members make it such that the player is trapped between the two players (shown in dark green).

Notice if the midfielder does happen to get a pass it will be of poor quality due to Seattle’s intense pressing. As such the nearby Seattle players can go for the ball and launch a counterattack.

In fact, Seattle had a special trigger in place. Whenever two Seattle players converged on the person, Seattle players would quickly man mark nearby Atlanta’s midfielders in an attempt to capitalize on a 2v1 situation.

Seattle’s quick and expansive attack cripples Atlanta’s defence

While the Rave Green had 57% of the possession, their insistence on the use of possession was not for the standard buildup. While the Rave Green did initiate buildup, the Seattle preferred to vertically progress up the pitch as fast as possible.

One of the ways Seattle did this was through long balls. Since Seattle had two forward men, their aim was to have one of their forwards contest in the first aerial duel. After losing the first aerial duel, the second forward would come close and win the second ball. 

With this simple technique, Seattle could progress into an attacking scenario. However, this tactic was not their main preferred method to progress vertically. Seattle used a variety of techniques that made it hard for Atlanta to defend.

After progressing vertically, Seattle employed various tactics to achieve one goal: stretch Atlanta’s defence as much as possible.

One of the first ways Seattle accomplished this was through the principle of going backwards to go forwards. 

In this principle, Seattle’s main striker, Ruidíaz, would drop deep. Inevitably, Ruidíaz would attract an Atlantan defender. This would disrupt the defensive structure of Atlanta. From here, Ruidíaz would pass to the nearby 10, Nicolás Lodeiro. Lodeiro would hold the ball for a few seconds, attracting more opposition players. 

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the first phase of the “go backwards to go forward” movement.

Here the striker drops deep. In doing so, he also attracts another Atlantan defender (shown in red). This action disrupts the defensive structure, creating a big space between the fellow Atlanta centrebacks.

Finally one of the fullbacks or wide midfielders, who was positioned on the touchline, would make a curved run. Lodeiro would release the overlapping player and all of a sudden, with two passes, Seattle would create a 1v1 on the wing.

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see phase two of the “go backwards to go forward” movement.

Here Lodeiro has the ball and is going to release the running fullback. Notice how, when he releases the fullback, there will be a 1v1 situation created on the wing and Seattle can make a dangerous cross or cutback.

The first action of the striker and the second action of the number 10 stretched the defence vertically while the third action of the fullback/wide midfielder shifted the defence horizontally. These stretches and shifts created holes for other midfielders to run and occupy in. 

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the consequence of this movement.

This is the end result of that action. As one can see, there is a huge space created between the centreback (as shown in orange). This space can be exploited by a running player, such as the striker. Moreover, the fullback can quickly pass the ball into space. As one can see, the defence has been shifted horizontally but also vertically. The midfield is far from the defensive line.

As such if the Seattle can get the ball into the centre, Atlanta will most likely concede a goal.

The second way Seattle accomplished their goal was through long, diagonal switches of the play. For this passing movement to occur, either one of the fullback/wide midfielders had to position themselves right on the touchline. Moreover, they had to be near proximity to the defensive line. 

This positioning is strategic as it forces the fullback to either come wide and mark the Seattle player or stay narrow. In either case, there is a creation of space that either the team or the player can use.

With the positioning set, Seattle would often pass the ball around and pass to one of their deep-lying midfielders or centrebacks. They would launch a diagonal ball to the wide players. After quick combinations, Seattle would go central again and switch the play to the left-hand side again.

This consecutive switching of play forced Atlanta to readjust and shift their positions constantly. Spaces and holes are created within and between Atlanta’s lines. These were further complemented by diagonal runs which allowed Seattle to get in behind the defence. 

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see one of the end results of such switches of play.

Here we can see the wide position of the Seattle fullback has also dragged the Atlant fullback out. This has created a space between the centreback and the fullback (shown in pink) and can be exploited by a midfielder’s run (shown in pink). With this action, Seattle will find themselves in a halfspace and as such in a position for a dangerous low cross.

Atlanta’s ineffective response to Seattle’s attack

Atlanta had intended for them to build up and progress themselves upwards. However, Seattle’s effective pressing restricted their passing lanes and neutralized their build-up plan.

Atlanta’s response was one that was born out of desperation. Instead of playing through Seattle, Atlanta tried to launch long balls straight to the defence. 

For this to occur, Atlanta had to position two of their midfielders wide and high. While at first glance this approach looks similar to Seattle’s expansive attacking plan, there were some errors in the execution of the plan.

While Seattle would often play quick combinations, Atlanta looked to rely solely on the wide men to try to attack. What this meant was that the Five Stripes player had to hold the ball and attack the fullback.

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the long ball strategy from Atlanta.

As seen in this picture, one of the long balls is received by an Atlantan attacker. He finds himself in a 1v1 with the Seattle defender. Moreover, the defender’s run blocks any passing lanes to the nearby Atlantan attacker. As such, this attack will fizzle out as the Atlantan attackers are far too apart and there are more Seattle defenders present.

This goal was already difficult as Seattle’s pressing often cornered the wide men and resulted in dead attacks. Moreover, the quality of the long balls was low. The long ball would either be too fast, too slow, or just inaccurate. This is evidenced by Atlanta’s passing accuracy rate, a low 72%.

In the times that the Five Stripes got enough of the players to support an attack, Atlanta United’s go-to strategy was to cross. Atlanta’s sole goal came through a cross from a corner and highlights their poor attacking performance.

At times, Atlanta tried to get creative. One of their alternative attacking options was to have the fullback go wide instead of the midfielder. From there, the fullback could combine with a nearby midfielder to produce a quick one-two.

However, a lack of attention often resulted in the fullback losing the ball to a Seattle player or simply having to play it back.

In an attempt to aid his team, The Five Stripes’ main striker, Josef Martínez would often drop deep and try to advance the ball progression. At times, nice combinations would be struck between the players but to no avail.

The main problem for The Five Stripes was that they were repeatedly being denied the opportunity to go inside. While they would play long balls to the wing flanks, their ultimate goal was to use this fast vertical progression to come inside.

Unfortunately, Seattle’s compact defensive organization would prevent them from coming inside by denying them the opportunity to get into the central spaces.

Whenever crosses were played in, there would always be numerical superiority for the Rave Green. This was in part due to Seattle’s strong defensive structure but also due to a lack of initiative from Atlanta.

MLS 2019: Seattle Sounders vs Atlanta United - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the situation for Atlanta in crossing.

Notice how there are only three Atlantan attackers for a perfectly good cross. The Seattle defenders outnumber the attackers in a ratio of 2:1. Simply put, there is no way that the Atlanta defenders can get behind the ball and even test the goalkeeper. Situations like these fizzled out any hope for Atlantan comebacks.

Another factor in Atlanta’s poor attacking output was simply a structural issue. Often times, Atlanta’s lines were too far apart and as such, the attacking line often had no support from the midfield line.

Conversely, this also meant that Seattle could often get past Atlanta with ease and as such, Atlanta would never see much of the ball. This is evidenced by the fact that they had 47% possession, with most of it occurring in their own half.

All in all, Atlanta’s attempt at changing tactics did not work well and all of their cumulative efforts eventually ended in a really poor attacking output, as shown with them only having two shots on target, in the whole game, from a total of 12 shots (an accuracy rate of 16.7%).


De Boer will have a lot of thinking and tinkering to do. Atlanta United completely crumbled under Schmetzer’s high-intensity Rave Greens. De Boer will be disappointed in his side’s defensive structure as it was prone to splitting through balls. The analysis and statistics have shown, conversely, that Schmetzer’s tactics are working wonders. This win will be a huge boost for the morale of the squad as they push to break from third. 

Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

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